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Deadwood: Guns, Goons, Gold, and Genius

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The Binge
Jessica Zafra

“Pain and damage don’t end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then you’ve got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.” — Al Swearengen

THE TEMPTATION is to go on reciting lines from Deadwood until we run out of space. If you saw the sanitized version that aired locally on HBO I pity you — but I also envy you the excellent excuse to watch the series again. When HBO canceled Deadwood after three seasons, it deprived loyal viewers of closure, but it also ensured that the series would gain legendary status: a series of such genius, it could not be allowed to continue.

Nearly a decade later, Deadwood has survived its own demise. It is not only a regular fixture on critics’ polls of the top 10 greatest TV shows in history, it is actually moving up. Then there are periodic reports of a Deadwood film, the latest surfacing in August. Given the number of superb new TV shows out there, why should we care about resurrecting a short-lived series in a genre of limited appeal (the western), in which the word “fuck” was uttered 1.5 times per minute?

Hoopleheads, consider this your introduction to Deadwood.




WHAT THE FUCK IS IT?
Deadwood is a drama series set in a mining camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1876. It begins two weeks after the Battle of Little Bighorn, at the height of America’s western expansion in pursuit of its Manifest Destiny (which eventually led it to the Philippines — Quick, someone get David Milch’s number). There is no law in Deadwood, which is still Sioux land, but there is gold, and every opportunist, criminal, and adventurer in search of a fresh start wants a piece.

Among the new arrivals is Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a marshal who carries out his final duties before riding out with his friend, Sol Star (John Hawkes). Bullock is tall, handsome, a stickler for the law, and rocks a ten-gallon hat, so we assume that he is the hero of the show. Not exactly. Then is the hero the renowned gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), who blows into camp with his cohorts Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) and Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), and whose pronouncements roll like thunder? No, and history will give you a spoiler. Deadwood upends expectations, so you’d better get used to it.

The protagonist of Deadwood is Deadwood itself — a camp that evolves into a town, a microcosm for the birth of a nation. Over 36 episodes the law is imposed, a government is formed, the town becomes part of the United States, a financial system evolves, capitalism rises. Creator David Milch, whose previous credits include NYPD Blue, has said that Deadwood is about how civilization arises from chaos. (Why is he not making a film of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian?)

“August commencement to my administration, standing stymied outside a saloon next to a degenerate tit-licker. I begrudge that man his capacity for happiness. I do.” — E. B. Farnum

DID THIS REALLY HAPPEN?
Ignorant as I am about American history, I reckoned that it was made up. I figured that Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), the saloon keeper, all-around bastard and unofficial ruler of the camp, was a fictional character, so named because he swore so much. Since then I’ve learned that the town is real, and Swearengen, Bullock, Star, Utter, and company did exist. Many of the events that unfold on the show did happen. Deadwood is history, embellished.

Calamity Jane: Maybe I will have a fucking drink, for sociability’s sake and ‘cause I’m a fucking drunk.

Joanie Stubbs: What’s your preference?

Calamity Jane: That it ain’t been previously swallowed.

WHY THE FUCK DO THEY SWEAR SO MUCH?
According to Milch, extreme profanity is authentic for the period, but since 19th century cuss words sound funny (“Tarnation, where’s that dratted strumpet?”), he opted for contemporary expletives that would have a similar effect on viewers. The language also reminds us that Deadwood is outside the pale of civilization.

But any show can issue two fucks a minute. Deadwood combines profanity with a formal, courtly diction that achieves a Shakespearean grandeur — and then gives many of these lines to E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), the weaselly hotel keeper and acting mayor. “Could you have been born, Richardson?” he taunts his simple-minded employee. “And not egg-hatched as I’ve always assumed? Did your mother hover over you, snaggletoothed and doting as you now hover over me?… Puberty may bring you to understand, what we take for mother love is really murderous hatred and a desire for revenge.”

(It should be noted that Farnum became acting mayor because no one else wanted the job. Holding government positions got in the way of lying and stealing. At that time, the US had just marked its first centennial as a nation.)

“In life you have to do a lot of things you don’t fucking want to do. Many times, that’s what the fuck life is… one vile fucking task after another.” — Al Swearengen

WHO’S IN IT?
If we go by the traditional hero-villain formula, then Bullock is hero to Swearengen’s villain. On Deadwood humans are complex organisms: the righteous Bullock is given to breaking his own rules, and the diabolical Swearengen is capable of great kindness. At no advantage to himself, he adopts the handicapped Jewel (Geri Jewell) in order to protect her. In one gut-wrenching subplot, he performs a mercy killing. Swearengen and Bullock have a combative relationship, but they grow to understand each other. A society needs morally upright men, but it’s the forward-thinking schemers who drive progress.

Tough luck for Tim Olyphant that Ian McShane had the more interesting role and did it magnificently. Swearengen is a criminal mastermind in the first season, a community builder in the second, and by the third season he’s battling the monopolistic capitalist George Hearst (Gerald McRaney). He’s not a good guy, but he’s almost the hero. Post-Deadwood McShane headlined Kings, a modern-day version of the Book of Kings, where he spoke in Old Testament cadences. Olyphant took his Gary Cooper-ness to Justified, where he played Marshal Raylan Givens for six terrific seasons.

Brad Dourif brings a towering rage to the role of Doc Cochran, surely the busiest medical practitioner in TV history, locked in a continuing argument with God. “Just please, God, take that minister. What conceivable godly use is his protracted suffering to you? What conceivable godly use was the screaming of all those men?”

Other cast members have gone on to greater acclaim: John Hawkes to Winter’s Bone and The Sessions, Molly Parker to House of Cards, W. Earl Brown to American Crime, Kim Dickens to Gone Girl, Paula Malcomson to Ray Donovan, Garret Dillahunt to Raising Hope, and Anna Gunn to Breaking Bad.

I haven’t even mentioned Mr. Wu and the evidence-destroying pigs, the widow Garret, her laudanum addiction and her gold bonanza, or A.W. Merrick, publisher of the Deadwood Pioneer. You’ll have to watch Deadwood yourself. I leave you with Swearengen’s plea for civility:

“You can’t slit the throat of everyone whose character it would improve.”

Contact the author at TVatemyday@gmail.com.

Read her work every week at BusinessWorld, every day at JessicaRulestheUniverse.com.

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